“After my mum died, I was forced to grow up overnight”

Melissa Chong* recounts how her mother’s death toughened her up as she had to fend for herself.

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“I was 15 when I lost my mum — who was in her 40s — to cancer. She never told me or my siblings — I have an older and a younger brother — about her illness but we could tell that she wasn’t very well.

Eventually, she went to see a GP, who told her there was a very small lump on her neck — about the size of a quail’s egg. We learnt later that the tumour didn’t just affect the functions of her ear, nose and throat, it also caused vision problems, so she had to wear glasses. The doctor told her an operation could improve her condition but she didn’t undergo the procedure as she was fearful of surgery.

My mother, being the traditional Chinese woman she was, preferred trying alternative forms of treatment. She frequently visited various temples to pray or consult a man who claimed to be a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physician. They would prescribe all kinds of weird ingredients with medicinal properties like specific types of bugs that looked like cockroaches or earthworms.

“[Chemotherapy] was very harsh… She would throw up violently…at times, she was too weak to even walk ― I had to carry her on occasions...”

I can even vividly recall an occasion when I accompanied her to catch live lizards. And if you’ve tried to catch one before, you’ll know that their tails fall off when they’re threatened by a predator. Trouble is, the prescription said that she had to consume a whole live lizard! Being the obedient child, I followed my mother around in her crazy pursuit of these ingredients, without a question.

After two years spent trying these alternative treatments and seeing no improvements in her condition, she eventually decided to see the Western doctor. But by then, her tumour had already grown to the size of a chicken egg.

Since it was the 80s and technology wasn’t as advanced then, chemotherapy was very harsh on the body. As I accompanied her to her treatments, I got to witness the side effects first-hand. She would throw up violently…at times, she was too weak to even walk ― I had to carry her on occasions when there were no available wheelchairs.

My two brothers never had to lift a finger or do anything to help when my mum was unwell. In fact, I even had to wash their uniforms and their shoes — it was as if I was their maid and had to do everything.